Traveling the Closed Loop of Time

I don’t see so much time travel fiction these days. Maybe I’m just blind. It’s possible that we’ve simply outgrown it in our various genres, but I kind of miss it. In particular, I miss the variant of time travel stories that I call “closed loop” stories.

The closed loop is both a way around a number of paradoxes as well as being one of the biggest paradoxes of all. Instead of going back and killing your great grandfather, you go back and become your great grandfather – remember, that mysterious gentleman that came from nowhere in particular? You haven’t changed history because that’s the way history was in the first place. You didn’t take your great grandfather’s place. You were always your great grandfather.

I’ve seen dozens of these, from books like Asimov’s old End of Eternity to movies like The Terminator or Somewhere in Time. I’m going to assume you’re familiar with the 1984 film The Terminator -SPOILER ALERT- and point out that Kyle Reese comes back in time only because John Conner sent him, and John Conner exists only because Kyle Reese went back and got John’s mother Sarah pregnant. It’s a fairly clean closed loop. It works fine in that all the causes loop back upon themselves so that history unfolds the same way every time through the loop. It has no messy paradoxes of killing your ancestor or anything like it.

Except for one problem: how did the loop get started in the first place?

It’s fine and dandy when Reese comes back to father John, because that’s the way it’s always been. Well, what about the first time through that timeline, when we have not yet sent Reese back? Well, then we’re pretty well screwed.

Sure, Sarah Conner doesn’t have to fight off any Terminator because he hasn’t come back either, but on the other hand, she’s stuck at home with her roommate cursing the various boyfriends that stand her up on a Friday night. She never gets pregnant, or at least, she doesn’t carry Reese’s child, and John Conner is never born. Instead, his sister Jane was the result of a binge night down on Tiko Blvd. They live on for a couple of years and are wiped out when Skynet starts World War III. Skynet never has to deal with the victorious John Conner, never sends the Terminator back to kill Sarah, and goes on to explore the galaxy and become the villain in some other species’ movie.

Another example of how this lack of start for the closed loop causes a problem is in the film Somewhere in Time. In that film, an old woman gives Christopher Reeves a pocket watch. That starts him on a train of research that leads him to travel back in time to meet that same woman in her youth, and during that visit, he leaves the pocket watch behind. I call objects like that watch timeless or eternal objects, because they keep travelling through the loop over and over, never being created or destroyed. Cool watch, eh?

What we really need then, is an alternate version of the story to explain what happened the first time through that led to “history is as history was” closed loop. With one possible exception I’ll mention at the bottom, I’ve never seen one. Now, I have seen a couple of closed loops where the heroes get some idea of what’s going on and break out of that loop, but we never seem to see them getting started.

For fun, let’s take a look at what such an alternate version of The Terminator might look like. Let’s suggest perhaps, that Sarah Conner’s date that night didn’t stand her up. His name is Jack, and while he and Sarah aren’t destined for the long haul, she does get pregnant and name the son after this man, i.e. Jack Conner. Jack’s dad runs a gun store and is a bit of a survival nut, so he urges Sarah and little Jack to get out of the city before Skynet has its day. Jack Conner grows up to defeat Skynet, but in hopes of a destiny end-around Skynet sends the terminator back to kill Sarah. Jack, of course, sends Kyle Reese back to protect his mother Sarah.

Only this time, Jack’s dad has an unfortunate episode. While shopping for some weapons, the Terminator kills Jack’s would-be father, right in his gun store. You remember that scene, don’t you? Sarah then falls in love with Reese right on schedule but decides she doesn’t like the name Jack – Jack, after all, being the name of the gun-nut asshole who just stood her up. She chooses the name John instead. And from there, the closed loop continually repeats. Kyle comes back with news of John Conner, saves her, and fathers John again.

Of course, the repeat doesn’t make for a good film, which is probably why we never see how these closed loops get started. In fact, other than a few time travel geeks like myself, I don’t think anyone would particularly enjoy that kind of repetitive story, but well… I am one of those few time travel geeks, and I obsess about it.

So let me tell you about a movie that seems to have been made specifically for time travel geeks like me: Primer. This is something of a spoiler since we’re already talking about time travel, so the cats out of the bag: Primer involves time travel. They get into that aspect fairly quickly, but in a very roundabout way. I’ll just say that the time travel in Primer is really smart and uses a mechanism unlike any I’ve even run into before. And it’s sort of a closed loop. And we kind of see it happen, and yet I’m still not sure it’s technically a closed loop. It’s… well, let me just say that Primer is both the most imaginative and most confusing time travel story I’ve ever run into. I’m not sure I can honestly say I understand it even after three or four viewings.

So, what closed loop time travel stories have you run into? Do you have a favorite? Anything I should take a look at it and then go back in time to include in my original posting?

5 thoughts on “Traveling the Closed Loop of Time

  1. Well, this one isn’t closed loop, but “Trancers” has a fun take on time travel.

    Also, “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” does its very best to kick causality and the closed loop in the crotch as often as it can. Which is one reason that movie is so much fun. 🙂 (Dude, gotta remember the trash can….)

    The whole “Planet of the Apes” movie series becomes a closed loop, even though neither the original novel nor the first three movies have such elements, since all the time travel is forward. (And though I like the subsequent movies well enough, I still consider the first three to be the “real” PotA story arc.)

    That’s all I can think of for now.

  2. Don’t forget about all those Star Trek episodes! More time travel paradoxes there than you can shake a Heisenberg Compensator at.

    I like how comically the show Futurama handles paradoxes. They usually just “accidentally” kill off the other them-s.

  3. The thing I often find frustrating about ontological paradox is precisely the fact that it’s an infinite loop with no clear point of origin. I think your take on the origin of the ontological paradox in Terminator is an intriguing angle .. and the story could well be told from that point and following the loop around to the beginning of the loop’s first iteration with John Connor in place of the young Jack.

    It would be a very different story than the mostly unremarkable action-adventure film it was originally. And it would be a much more interesting story told from that angle as a reboot, I think .. 😉

  4. Why do the loops have to “start” anywhere? Why can’t they just be eternal? It seems analogous to looking at a Möbius strip and asking where it starts, only in time instead of space.

    The first couple of seasons of the TV show Heroes, before it started completely sucking, was chock-full of these kinds of loops.

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